Boston Massacre

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TSWBAT analyze and respond to the incident, the Boston Massacre, using the famous propaganda painting by Paul Revere.

Big Idea

Who says this massacre was a massacre?

Simulation Information

5 minutes

The Colonists in Crisis unit is an Impersonation Experience for the kids.  This means that for the duration, they are who they are learning about.  By learning their historical information from the perspective of someone who's living it, lessons are engaging, the content is enhanced, and the kids retain what they've learned easily.  Weeks before our unit begins, I request that the kids bring in journals to use throughout.  These journals should be real journals, Colonist Journals if possible.  Spiral notebooks are acceptable, but it's more fun if they're using something less school related.  Having said that, I've had kids cover spiral notebooks with brown paper, fray the edges to look old, etc.  Whatever makes them happy, makes me happy.  These journals will be chock full of their responses to the prompts I write after teaching lessons.  They will contain lots of historical information as well as personal experiences to make the simulation feel real. 

Colonist Names: When I created this unit, I had no husband or children.  Having all the time in the world, I painstakingly researched the names of actual people who lived in the same town in the year 1765.  I found these names in birth and death certificates, marriage licenses, census records, and even a ship's log.  At the time, if was important for me to authenticate wherever possible.  Today, I would simply create great sounding colonist names and call it good.  Having authentic names is pretty cool, though, because they're able to Google the people and learn a bit about the individuals.  An important factor when I distribute the names is for it to be random and for good.  Just as you stick with the name given to you by your parents, you stick with your colonist name.      

At the beginning of the year, long before anyone was anticipating the Colonists unit, I gave the kids a "Cryptic Survey" Cryptic Survey Key example side 1 titled, SUSD School Movement Survey.  They were to answer the questions to the best of their ability.  5th graders don't question as much as we'd like...they just do.  So they just "did."  Voila, I had my data. 

The survey is my way to group them into the three categories: Patriots, Loyalists, and Neutralists. Their answers dictate where I place them, so there's no complaining as soon as they're realize the answers to the survey they took in August was their own choice.  Please note, this survey isn't scientific, and the teacher always has the last word...random grouping can be a disaster.  Still, I use it as a guideline as faithfully as I can.  Also, I never show the kids their surveys and believe it or not, they don't even ask.  The gist of the survey uses England as our school and the American Colonies, as a different school.  A sample question, "If I had to move from Desert Canyon to another school I would be: a) excited  b) upset  c) neither"  the answer key would show a) Patriot  b) Loyalist  c) Neutralist.  There are nine questions in all, not the greatest questions, but adequate, and it's worked for years.  Improvements on the cryptic survey are welcome.

Once groups are established, kids move their desks and ownership of their town begins.  I have tried mixing them all up in the past because even colonists in the same house had different views, but it proved to make my job more difficult in the long run.  The Neutralists actually sit in two rows in the back.  They're a group, but not really.  As the unit progresses, they watch the events unfold and decided which side they agree with.  On "Neutral Picking Days" Patriots and Loyalists are hopeful to grab new members.  A Neutral doesn't have to make a selection until right before the Boston Tea Party, which is well into the unit.  I try to stick with historical correctness when possible, so the groups aren't evenly split into thirds.  There are about the same number of Patriots and Neutralists, and fewer Loyalists.

Cryptic Survey Key example page 2

Warm Up

15 minutes

The Boston Massacre wasn't quite a massacre, as many people are aware.  However, it has gone down in history as one of the best examples of propaganda around.  Kids these days are all too familiar with the word massacre, which makes this lesson surprising and challenging as they connect the reason a "non-massacre" made such headlines.  Even today the Boston Massacre continues to make headlines as they celebrate the anniversary of the event each year around March 5th.

We begin with a modern video in which the kids will realize that they aren't always aware Watching the Video of what's around them.  This will help depict the way the colonists felt as they tried to figure out what had happened on King Street through witness testimony. Read no further if you want to try it out on your own.


The unreliability of, "seeing something that's right before your eyes," will be established...for the most part.  I experimented with this on my own family, and although I didn't see him, with my test subjects, it was 50/50 on whether the gorilla was noticed.  Due to this, when introducing the idea of counting the ball passes, insist to your students that they say absolutely NOTHING during the short video.  Hopefully, this will prevent a child from declaring, "Look it's a Gorilla "The Shocker!

In my classroom, the kids were respectful of this, and the activity had the desired effect. It led to a discussion that I hadn't expected, but that was great.  One student mentioned a show, "Brain Games," he'd seen on TV and gave examples that were reminiscient of the "invisible gorilla," as it's called.  They begged for more examples, but of course something like that needs to be a surprise to work.  All in all, it was an effective lead-in to the idea of looking directly at something, but not really seeing it.

Who was aware?! The Aware

Who was unaware?! The Unaware


30 minutes

Now it's time to get into history.  Just what happened that March 5, 1770 in Boston, MA?  Present the image of Paul Revere's famous, yet inaccurate, painting The Bloody Massacre...Paul Revere Engraving for the kids to ponder.  The kids are in their Colonist groupings of Patriots, Loyalists (and Neutralists if there are any left.)  This may influence their perspective on the painting, depending on how fervently they're identifying with their "side." 

Using the Painting Analysis Worksheet, individually or in their groups they complete it and try to determine what they think is going on.  A great tool is the idea of dividing the illustration into "quadrants" Showing Quadrant Technique on Smart Board so that the kids easily focus on one particular section of the picture at a time. Although I have an example on the Smart Board, it's best to give each child their own picture (black and white off the copy machine worked just fine) so they can draw the quadrants themselves. Student Copy Showing Quadrants They should fold the paper in half in both directions and then draw clear lines on the two creases.  

Kids working on their quadrants  Analyzing "The Bloody Massacre"

After adequate work time, Utilizing Quandrant Technique bring the class back together as a large group to state opinions Student Explains "The Bloody Massacre" #1 and/or read the analysis sheets Student Explains "The Bloody Massacre" #2. They use evidence from what they see in the painting to support their ideas.  My class enjoyed hearing the different people, objects, and activities their classmates discovered in the illustration.  As I walked around the room, many would feel that they'd seen everything there was to see, so hearing others ideas was eye-opening for them.  After sharing is complete, alert them to the fact that this was a painting created for propaganda use at the time.  This will prompt the question, "What does propaganda mean?" which is a lead in for the perfect way to acquaint them with both the term itself and the facts of the Boston Massacre.  Instead of answering the questions, tell them that they will tell YOU the answer after you've given them a more accurate account of what happened that day.   

Completed Analysis Page #1...Completed Analysis Page #2


15 minutes

To come to conclusion, the kids take a moment to write in their Colonist Journals and describe the events they "witnessed".  These journals entries are shared with the class and further discussion may take place.  I give the kids a "Crisis in Boston" worksheet Crisis in Boston Student Example 1 to check for understanding.

As one of the key events leading up to the American Revolution, it fascinates the students as they move through the simulation.  One of the things to be prepared for is the continuing mention of massacres.  It was apparent that this lesson was discussed at home because some well-known massacres were brought up the following day (i.e. Jonestown, Guiana; Columbine) and I addressed them.  In this day in age, the students are unfortunately used to hearing about so many tragedies that they discuss them, not with outrage, but with acceptance.  I find it best to answer honestly, but not go too far off on a tangent.

Colonist Journal March 5, 1770 with Illustration

March 5, 1770 Student Example #1

March 5, 1770 Student Example #2

March 5, 1770 Student Example #3

March 5, 1770 Student Example #3 continued a 

March 5, 1770 Student Example #3 continued b

March 5, 1770 Student Example #4

March 5, 1770 Student Example #5

I'm pleased with the way the kids respond to each section of this lesson.  They are comfortable with writing in their journals, but each had great success with the painting analysis.  Truly, something as simple as separating a picture into quadrants made all the difference in viewing perspective.  This, in turn, contributed to how easily they could analyze the painting on the Painting Analysis Worksheet.